Mindfulness: The Unfettered Mind

We are alive, but we are neither aware of it nor present in the act.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Mindfulness is a term so overused, it no longer holds any meaning. It is meant to mean something different from what we are presently doing, but since it is so ubiquitous, it is like saying, more of the usual. What we are after is what Takuan Sōhō (1573 – 1645) calls the "unfettered mind."

Sōhō was a Zen monk, counsel to the shogun, and a friend to several master swordsmen. The unfettered mind is a path without preference or expectations.

The unfettered mind is relevant again because the broader culture has lost its engagement with the act of living. We are alive, but we are neither aware of it nor present in the act. Time passes, but we are never there to experience it. We are elsewhere, living on autopilot, whilst our conscious mind is engaged with achievement, money, and gossip.

The Unfettered Mind: Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master are a series of letters written by Takuan Sōhō to various swordmasters. It seeks to unify the spirit of Zen with the spirit of the sword, without losing the reader to Zen esotericism but to see Zen in all things.

Numerous situations can occur in one's life, and we may think we are different in each situation (professional me, social me, relationship me, etc.) but the unfettered mind is a unified whole. When we think from the point of view of each of our different selves, we think from our own self-interest, selfishness. When see as a whole, when we see no difference between us and them, we can clear our minds to what is right.

Sōhō writes:

When you look at a tree, see it for its leaves, its branches, its trunk and the roots, then and only then will you see the tree.

Since the industrial revolution and the advent of the assembly line, our worldview has become one of specification. Rather than seeing the world broadly, we only see specific functions and specific instances. (We need numerous examples to see how a rule applies in multiple situations. Usually one for each scenario. This is redundant but necessary for the specific-mind who lacks imagination and the ability to recognize patterns.) In this way, the world becomes fragmented into a giant jig-saw, where we each hold our individual puzzle pieces but are each blind to grander view.

When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.

Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments relates a similar idea:

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

Seeing the world as is, not as we wish it to be. Adam Smith continues:

If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

This nearsightedness blinds us to the gap between the description and the described. We have words, but words are not up to the task of experience and awareness. Sōhō writes:

One may explain water, but the mouth will not become wet. One may expound fully on the nature of fire, but the mouth will not become hot.

See the world without preference or expectations.

If we observe phenomena closely, it cannot be thought that anything between heaven and earth is really different. If we see differences, it is due to the narrowness of our vision.

When we force and insist, our minds will resist. Pay attention to what you are paying attention to.

If it is sent in one direction, it will be lacking in nine others. If the mind is not restricted to just one direction, it will be in all ten.

Sōhō writes of the mind:

The Right Mind is the mind that does not remain in one place. It is the mind that stretches throughout the entire body and self.

The Confused Mind is the mind that, thinking something over, congeals in one place.

When the Right Mind congeals and settles in one place, it becomes what is called the Confused Mind. When the Right Mind is lost, it is lacking in function here and there. For this reason, it is important not to lose it.

In not remaining in one place, the Right Mind is like water. The Confused Mind is like ice, and ice is unable to wash hands and head. When ice is melted, it becomes water and flows everywhere, and it can wash the hands, the feet, or anything else.

If the mind congeals in one place and remains with one thing, it is like frozen water and is unable to be used freely: ice that can wash neither hands nor feet. When the mind is melted and is used like water, extending throughout the body, it can be sent wherever one wants to send it.

If you force your will, your will can never act quickly enough. In times of conflict, you must trust in your practice.

If ten men, each with a sword, come at you with swords slashing, if you parry each sword without stopping the mind at each action, and go from one to the next, you will not be lacking in a proper action for every one of the ten.

The unfettered mind is responsive, quick to adapt, and ready to react. It is not rigid.

The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.

For this to occur, one must be present. There is only ever this moment. You can only read these words in the moment. To imagine the future applications of these words happens in the moment. Even to remember these words, you must do so in the present moment.

There is a saying, ‘Sever the edge between before and after.’ Not ridding the mind of previous moments, allowing traces of the present mind to remain – both are bad. This means one should cut right through the interval between previous and present. Its significance is in cutting off the edge between before and after, between now and then. It means not detaining the mind.

We are a culture of control, but Zen is of yielding control. The want of control only brings you further away from what you originally sought — peace.

The mind that thinks about removing what is within it will by the very act be occupied. If one will not think about it, the mind will remove these thoughts by itself and of itself become No-Mind.

If one always approaches his mind in this way, at a later date it will suddenly come to this condition by itself. If one tries to achieve this suddenly, it will never get there.

And old poem says:

To think, ‘I will not think’ —
This, too, is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think
About not thinking at all.

In times of confusion, the Zen writings of Takuan Sōhō can bring much-needed relief. However, it is one thing to read the words, that is only one-half of the process. The gap between description and experience can only be bridged through meditation and reflection. This is the other half.

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